Joanna Lumley, Mark Rylance, and David Hyde Pierce
in La Bête
(© Manuel Harlan)
Joanna Lumley, Mark Rylance, and David Hyde Pierce
in La Bête
(© Manuel Harlan)
Matthew Warchus' entertaining revival of David Hirson's verse play, La Bête, is currently playing the West End for a short run before an immediate transfer to Broadway's Music Box Theatre.

Set in 17th century France, Hirson's play pits artistic integrity against an encroaching trend of populism. It is in part a pastiche of Moliere, and is told entirely in rhyming couplets. Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), the high-minded, favoured playwright of the court, is appalled to receive a writ forcing him to accept Valere (Mark Rylance), a rowdy street entertainer, into his acting troupe.

The opening scene takes the form of an almost entirely uninterrupted monologue from the verbally incontinent and self-regarding buffoon Valere. Spitting through his false teeth, he babbles and belches, extols his own genius, makes repeated failed attempts to quote Cicero, and at one point retires to another room to defecate, talking away the whole time. This constant stream of words lasts for almost half an hour and Rylance never misses a beat. It's an exercise in excellent comic acting, at times ridiculous and near-giddy, with every pause and expression well-pitched.

This scene is both an asset and a burden. Such is the force of this opening onslaught that everything afterwards struggles to compete. The arrival of the Princess (played by Joanna Lumley) and Elomire's troupe of actors only muddies things further. The play becomes increasingly heavy-handed in the way it puts forward its ideas, seemingly content to go round in circles rather than advancing the argument. Hirson seems to be rather black and white in his views; to compromise is to fail and yet his play works best when it is both bawdy and witty.

The rest of the cast are somewhat in Rylance's shadow. For a large proportion of the play David Hyde Pierce's role is essentially a reactive one, but, as he demonstrated regularly during his years on Frasier, he's adept at this kind of performance and his Elomire shifts through phases of resignation, alarm and disgust to remain as unbendable as ever, bound to his ideals. Valere gets to stage his play for the Princess while Elomire is reduced to looking quietly aghast in the corner; he finally gets to say his piece near the end of the play but it -- inevitably -- lacks the force of what came before.

Stephen Ouimette gives a strong, solid performance as Elomire's actor friend Bejart, whose hunchback is a source of undisguised fascination and repulsion to Valere, and a suitably school-girlish Lumley does her best with what is the thinnest of the three main roles. Mark Thompson's towering, book-lined set is dramatic and attractively lit by Hugh Vanstone. But this is very much Mark Rylance's show and his performance eclipses all else.